It’s widely known that smoking weed can help reduce anxiety and stress, and generally help you relax and mellow out. So it makes sense that many people smoke before going to bed as a kind of “self-prescribed” sleep aid, and claim that it helps them to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer.
However, those same people often have a difficult time sleeping without it. It takes them longer to fall asleep, and when they do they report having unusually intense and vivid dreams — even nightmares which are hyper-realistic and highly disturbing. Naturally, this can make it hard to stop smoking for whatever reason.
Then you’ve got other people who claim that marijuana makes them hyper, and causes their mind to race a mile-a-minute. Obviously, these folks wouldn’t dream of smoking pot at bedtime.
That’s the problem with a substance as chemically complex as cannabis. There are more than 80 naturally occurring cannabinoids in the plant, all of which could potentially have psychoactive effects. And each one of those compounds will affect each person differently, depending on their biochemistry.
The problem is made that much worse by the decades long ban on marijuana research, which has prevented us from properly studying cannabis and it’s medicinal properties, and gathering accurate data on how it affects different groups of people. We are forced to rely too heavily on anecdotal evidence, the “word on the street.”
The questions remain. Can marijuana really help you sleep? How does it affect your dreams and your sleep cycle? Can it be used as a safe and effective, all-natural sleep aid?
Let’s take a look…
Stoned Sleep Studies
Most of what we know about how cannabis affects the sleep cycle dates back to a 1973 study done on a group of insomniacs. The patients were given different doses of THC, from 10 – 30 mg, which were found to “significantly decrease the time it takes to fall asleep.” They also demonstrated some improvement in their ability to sleep through the night without waking up periodically.
The study also noted a “hangover effect,” which I for one am personally familiar with. (Sure, I may sleep soundly if I get high late at night; but in the morning I feel like I’ve been run over by a truck. I’m tired and sore, and can barely drag myself out of bed.)
The greater the dosage, the worse the hangover, the study found. So like most things in life, moderation is key. Smoking too much before bedtime can make you feel terrible the next morning, and even make it more difficult to fall asleep (or eliminate the urge and desire to fall asleep).
There have also been some more recent studies on the effects of synthetic THC on those suffering from sleep apnea. This research is in the early stages, but preliminary results are promising.
Stages of the Sleep Cycle
In addition to helping users to fall asleep faster, cannabis is also shown to alter their sleep cycle in interesting ways. For one thing, it seems to lengthen the amount of time that people spend in deep, “slow wave sleep.” This is thought to be the most important phase of sleep, during which much of the body’s rejuvenation and restoration takes place.
Secondly, marijuana reduces the amount of time spent in REM (“rapid eye movement”) sleep, which is the phase in which dreaming happens. This explains why many pot smokers can’t ever remember their dreams — they aren’t spending enough time in REM sleep to actually have an active dream life.
It also causes the “REM rebound” effect I mentioned earlier, where a smoker who quits experiences a sudden surge of intense and powerful dreams for several nights, or sometimes weeks.
Truthfully, there’s still a lot we don’t understand about the nature of sleep, what happens during the different stages, and why it’s so important; much less how the influence of cannabis on our sleep cycle might affect our mental and physical health in the long run.
Do the Benefits Outweigh the Risks?
Given the pros and cons, is marijuana really a good choice for those struggling with insomnia or other sleep disorders? To arrive at a fair answer to that question, let’s consider for a moment some of the most commonly prescribed alternatives — and the side effects associated with them.
(It’s worth mentioning here that trouble sleeping is usually just a sign of bigger problems, like depression or chronic anxiety — and cannabis may also help to treat these underlying issues.)
Some of the most common drugs prescribed as sleep aids are powerful “sedative hypnotics.” Examples include Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata, and sometimes Xanax, Klonopin, Ativan or Librium. These prescription pills are all potentially addictive or habit-forming, and in extreme cases have caused such effects as:
- sleep walking and sleep driving (wtf?!)
- abnormal behavior, sometimes violent
- suicidal thoughts and actions
That’s some pretty heavy stuff. I mean, pot may suppress my dreams and make me feel kinda lousy in the morning, but it’s sure not gonna send me sleep-driving down the freeway at 70 mph. Or make me want to kill myself.
Okay, okay — so those are the most extreme cases; very rare. Fair enough. But even the most common side effects aren’t things I would wish on anybody. For instance:
- dizzyness, loss of balance
- trouble focusing or paying attention
- memory loss
- loss of appetite
- tingling or burning in hands, legs and feet
- uncontrollable tremors
When we consider the safety and effectiveness of marijuana as a medicine, we need to keep things in perspective… No, we don’t fully understand how pot affects the brain, or affects our sleep. But it’s a natural, herbal medicine that people have been smoking since the dawn of time. And the alternatives are dangerous synthetic chemicals that are known to cause serious harm, psychosis and even death.
For me at least, it’s an easy choice to make.
It’s All About the Strain
It’s also worth mentioning, as you probably already know, that there are some major differences in the way different kinds of bud affect you. It’s instructive (although really over-simplified) to differentiate between the two main strains of cannabis, namely indicas and sativas.
Indicas are shorter, bushier plants that are typically higher in THC. It’s commonly held (but not scientifically verified) that the indica high is more calming and relaxing, and the effects are felt primarily in the body.
Sativas plants are taller and ganglier, and tend to be higher in cannabidiol (CBD). The sativa high is generally much more energizing and cerebral (a mental, or “head high”).
It should be noted that after decades of careful cultivation and hybridization, there is now a dizzying variety of different strains, which combine the characteristics of both indicas and sativas in different ways. So there is really more of a colorful spectrum, as opposed to distinct categories.
The point is, that anyone wishing to use cannabis as a sleep aid is better off choosing an indica dominant strain, with a mellow, body high, instead of an uplifting and disorienting sativa strain.
Your Body, Your Choice
In the end, no one else can tell you how marijuana will affect you. Each person’s experience is unique, so you have to make an informed decision, and see for yourself how cannabis makes you feel, and what medicinal and psychological effects it has on you.
I think Dr. John Cline said it best:
“Cannabis is an exceedingly complex drug preparation, and its effects depend on the variety of the plant, the composition of the chemicals in any given sample, the route of administration, the setting in which it is used and the psychological state of the user.”